Responsible data challenges in humanitarian and advocacy organisations: what are the differences?


/ March 11, 2015

This post is by Alix Dunn and Tom Walker of the engine room.

We were excited to take part in an event in late February on ‘Responsible Data for Humanitarian Response’, which aimed to better understand how humanitarian organisations can collect and manage data in a way that respects individuals’ rights to consent, privacy, security and ownership (there are a few great wrap-up posts here and here).

Responsible Data Humanitarian event

This post lays out some differences between the challenges facing humanitarian organisations and advocacy organisations (the main audience for Responsible Data Forums) that are trying to use data responsibly:

  • Urgency, speed and efficiency can trump all: In a disaster, when every second matters, it’s easier to allow responsible data use to fall down the priority list. But while responding rapidly is crucial, urgency does not remove the need to be accountable to the people you’re seeking to help.
  • More actors have a data role to play, many of which have differing understandings of responsible data challenges – and varying capacity to deal with them: A wider range of organizations – including volunteer technological communities like CrisisMappers and private sector companies – are now involved in collecting, swapping and sharing humanitarian data. For  example, Internews recently counted more than 50 separate organisations involved in communicating with Ebola-affected communities. Each of these organizations may have differing interpretations of the risks involved in collecting data on affected populations and ideas on how to deal with the threats.
  • The humanitarian sector has stronger top-down coordination than other sectors: The coordination structure is trying to adapt to the pressures of dealing with new types of data, which include calls for standards to deal with ethical concerns around data collection and management. But guidelines may be ignored or only partially implemented if they are created in a top-down way that doesn’t account for the practical day-to-day challenges faced by the variety of actors engaged in humanitarian response.
  • Project life cycles are messier than in advocacy projects: Anticipating and managing how data will be used can be much more challenging in a humanitarian context. After the response is over, are as much time and resources spent on cleaning data and storing it securely? What are the implications if an organisation wants to be use it again? (This guide, developed by Responsible Data Forum participants, has more on this topic.)

If you have more suggestions for this list, we’d love to hear them in the comments.

So, what’s the same?

Despite these differences, the humanitarian sector is experiencing a lot of challenges that are shared with other parts of civil society:

  • Advocacy organisations, like the humanitarian community, struggle to prioritize responsible data when trying to change the world on a shoestring budget. Why hold back innovation just to defend against nebulous, seemingly abstract threats? In both communities, making responsible data challenges both concrete and addressable will take a lot of work.
  • Both the humanitarian and advocacy communities need practical support for addressing responsible data challenges. While the humanitarian responsible data event focused on principles and overarching frameworks, there is also a need for practical, approachable, and implementable solutions that address real problems that organisations are experiencing. This requires more careful thinking about the needs of different parts of the diverse humanitarian sector, consideration of whether approaches from other sectors are appropriate, and a better understanding of what tools and resources are best suited to organisations’ needs.

Photo by University of Leiden

About the contributor

Tom started out writing and editing for newspapers, consultancies and think tanks on topics including politics and corruption in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, then moved into designing and managing election-related projects in countries including Myanmar, Bangladesh, Rwanda and Bolivia. After getting interested in what data and technology could add in those areas and elsewhere, he made a beeline for The Engine Room. Tom is trying to read all of the Internet, but mostly spends his time picking out useful resources and trends for organisations using technology in their work.

See Tom's Articles

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